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The modern conference: Audio technology for the board room

Political party conferences, high-level international government summits, local authority debates: everyone taking part needs to be heard. Kevin Hilton convenes a discussion on the current state of technology in the board room

The image of conferences can still be influenced by the perception that they are predominantly a group of people sitting in a room, often wood-lined in an historic building, discussing weighty or arcane matters. That can still be the case but the reality is conferencing is a vital part of government, international affairs, finance, industry, medicine and commerce, all of which are now media and technology aware areas.

Because of this, the ‘modern conference’ makes full use of the latest technologies to not only ensure that everyone is able to have their say but there is also the capability to connect to other facilities, record the output and provide feeds to broadcast news services. The networking and routing aspects of today’s systems are recent additions to what has always been a technically aware market.

Pro audio in general has embraced wireless technology. The added advantage for conferencing, explains Duncan Savage, divisional manager at Shure UK, is wireless DECT mics can be connected to a transceiver and converted into a transmission technology such as Dante audio over IP (AoIP) for networking.

Shure, like beyerdynamic, AKG and Sennheiser, manufactures equipment for both sides of the conference technology market, which roughly divides into delegates systems – typically press-to-talk style for meeting rooms and dedicated facilities – and larger scale event-type installations featuring radio mics, mixing consoles and PA rigs.

“There are clear divisions between conferencing systems and individual DSP-run mic set-ups,” Savage says. “The first type tend to be used in places like the European court and council chambers, where there is a hierarchical structure with a chairman choosing who speaks and when. The corporate side is more fluid.” He adds that the two do come together on occasions, integrated using DSP-based routing systems, such as those from QSC and Polycom, to connect small meeting rooms featuring camera tracking systems as well as sound reinforcement.

Micro-flexible applications
Shure produces the Microflex (MX) wireless system for what it calls enterprise-scale boardrooms and AV conferencing, offering both fixed mic stations and handheld units. Sennheiser offers the ADN distributed digital audio range plus the TeamConnect product, which is designed for telephone and Skype conferencing in meeting rooms.

Nick Pemberton, market development manager at Sennheiser UK, observes that the two product lines highlight the difference between discussion and conference applications, with the first being more formal, chaired meetings. He says the ADN-W (wireless) system is aimed at discussions, with each delegate having a gooseneck mic and a request to speak button. “The ADN-W is fully encrypted because it is used in government and banking environments but there is a wired version as well, which we see used in large-scale government projects because radio waves are susceptible to interference and there is nothing safer than wire.”

Pemberton says there is no support as yet for networking standards such as AVB, Dante or RAVENNA on the delegate side, although Sennheiser is keeping abreast of developments. It also features Dante on its high-end digital radio mic range, the 9000 series (introduced last month at IBC), which he says is aimed at broadcast but is attracting interesting from suppliers in the corporate sector.

Ian Cullen, marketing director at AKG UK distributor Sound Technology, comments that he has seen a “definite increase in the need for wireless systems capable of encrypted, secure transmission”. Applications range from military to courtrooms and blue-chip financial services. “Systems capable of secure, encrypted audio transfer are being specified both for fixed installation in boardrooms and at conference events,” he says.

AKG has two products for the event market: the DMS700 v2 UHF digital wireless system for “the most content-sensitive applications” and the lower cost DMS Tetrad, with standard 128-bit AES (advanced encryption standard) encryption. AKG also produces the CS3 discussion system, a plug-and-play modular system that can support up to 60 microphone stations.

A recent entrant to the market is Xavtel with the Senator digital congress system. Romano M. Cunsolo, Xavtel’s director for worldwide marketing and business development, says the big change in conference system design has been the use of high speed networking in conjunction with powerful DSPs. “This allows every parameter to be stored in software, with pre-sets recalled when needed,” he explains. “It is only possible because of the high-speed networks used for products like Senator. The big advantage is that this saves a lot of costly DSP power to run 20 to 30 mics, especially if each has a different setting.”

The gooseneck microphone has been an almost constant factor in the design of delegate systems over the years. Developers have flirted with other designs, including the golf ball style and Polycom’s starfish phone format for teleconferencing, but in the main most manufacturers have stuck with a capsule on a bendable arm. A departure from these formats was made approximately eight years ago when beyerdynamic introduced the Revoluto microphone array technology.

Matt Nettlefold (pictured right), a business development manager at beyer’s UK distributor Polar Audio, describes the long, thin single unit, which contains 17 individual mic heads, as looking like a Toblerone bar. He says more people are now favouring this format, which is also known as a corridor mic, for both technical and practical reasons. “People can sit further away from an MPR mic, which makes for more relaxed meetings,” he comments, “but it is still able to improve the audio quality in a boardroom.”

Nettlefold says Revoluto-based units, which also include the Quinta family, have been used in a range of situations, from official enquiries and council chambers to solicitor meeting rooms. A recent introduction is AVB (Audio-Video Bridging) connectivity on the Quinta range of mics, which allow the units to be remotely linked over Cat-5 or Cat-6 cables to DSP devices. “This allows functions such as equalisation, acoustic echo cancellation and dialler systems to be carried out remotely,” explains Nettlefold. “It’s also used for multi-room installations, with signals carried over a network through AVB wall boxes.”

Concluded on Monday.